Breaking away from the ‘stiff upper lip’: processing emotions in the modern era

It is estimated that one in every four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Chances are, even if we ourselves are not suffering, we all have someone close to us who is. Despite these high prevalence levels, there is very much a stigma over mental health in this country. This stigma is deep-rooted, having somehow become engrained within our national identity – the British have long been characterised as placing importance on keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’. It’s something that we seem to pride ourselves on, without ever really questioning.

This seems to be embedded within the male psyche in particular – studies have found that men are on average far less likely to seek professional help when struggling with a mental health issue, with suicide rates alarmingly high (in fact, suicide is the biggest killer for men under the age of 45 in the UK).

And so the honest and upfront talk about mental health in the media over the last couple of weeks, though long overdue, feels incredibly groundbreaking. Few will have missed Prince Harry’s recent headline-making interview, in which he spoke candidly about his own experiences. He and the other young royals also fronted the recent Heads Together #OKTOSAY campaign, aiming to ‘change the conversation on mental health’ to huge press attention. Far from being just another half-hearted celebrity-fronted campaign, this feels like a genuine turning point, and their decision to talk openly has (quite rightly) received praise from mental health professionals, politicians and the media alike. The way we talk about mental health may finally be changing.

The truth is, we can all benefit from keeping tabs on our mental health just as we would with our physical health. No matter what your level of privilege, we all encounter stressful life events one way or another – and whether they be hugely traumatic events, or far smaller, they can all take their toll psychologically. A wealth of psychological and psychiatric research has shown how stressful life events can have a ‘triggering’ effect for many different disorders.

Of course not everyone who experiences an emotionally-salient negative event will go on to develop problems. Clinical Psychologist and emotional processing expert Dr Roger Baker explains that such events “need to be emotionally absorbed, adapted to and integrated into our experience so that we can get on with the task of daily living.” Over many years of research into this process, Dr Baker and his team discovered that there are both healthy and unhealthy styles of emotional processing: “A resilient emotional processing style means that a person can more effectively deal with stressors when they occur so there are less psychological and physical repercussions. Problematic styles of processing may mean that the stressful event is not properly absorbed or integrated, resulting in physical and psychological symptoms.”

The key thing to recognise is that our emotions are not enemy forces to be suppressed or kept in line, as the longstanding ‘stiff upper lip’ approach would have us believe. Rather, they are entirely natural responses – like a second immune system protecting us and helping us to understand and interpret the world around us.

Developed by Dr Roger Baker and his research team, the Emotional Processing Scale (EPS) is a groundbreaking psychometric tool that examines healthy and unhealthy styles of emotional processing and potential deficits. The EPS has already received high praise from the British Psychological Society for its pioneering approach to mental health. Discover the EPS at here.

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